Review: Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic WorldNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

A silk worm begins wrapping itself round in a cocoon, encasing itself in its fiber. Faceless hands unravel the cocoon, turning it into a single linear thread, the thread then woven together with other linear threads unraveled by other faceless hands until all the threads, warped and wefted, form a connected fabric. Finally, completing the circle, a woman poses for a portrait, wrapped up in yard upon yard of silk, another body encased and shrouded.

It’s a fitting prologue and introduction to Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk, a study in—literally and figuratively—the threads that connected and constructed the eighteenth-century British Atlantic Empire. Anishanslin’s book is not quite like any book that I’ve ever read before. It meanders—but with purpose: from Spitalfields Market in London, to an imagined college in Bermuda, to a parlor in Lancaster crowded with soldiers and military waggoners; from the inner mechanics of the loom, to the symbols within Milton’s Paradise Lost, to the aesthetics of colonial orchards and gardens; from cultural to intellectual to political to spatial to economic to material history. It defies traditional sub-disciplinary designations by design. Anishanslin’s ambitious first book draws inspiration from leading figures in material culture studies—Robert Blair St. George, T. H. Breen, Richard Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and others—but also draws inspiration from book historians like Robert Darnton, from economic historians, from religious historians, and from historians of transatlantic intellectual and epistolary networks.

Divided into four parts (with a fifth part added as a sort of epitaph), Portrait blocks the stage of its British Atlantic World with a main cast of four: Part 1 reconstructs the world of Anna Maria Garthwaite, English silk designer. Part 2 looks to Simon Julins, English master weaver. Part 3 concerns the subject of the painting, Anne Shippen Willing, colonial wearer. Part 4 moves then to Robert Feke, colonial painter. However, none of these characters is the true star. The central subject of Anishanslin’s study is not any particular person, but rather that eponymous portrait the silk designer, the master waver, the wearer, and the painter each helped to create.

Leading what I’m nearly tempted to term an object turn, Anishanslin is engaged in what she calls a “full biography of the object” (20) or “object-centered scholarship” (21). Objects are more than just physical things, Anishanslin argues. They “connect people across space and time; mark commercial transactions; play symbolic political roles; relay stories of labor, gift giving, and purchase; and provide insight into shared cultural imagination and aesthetic taste” (19). With that methodological commitment, Anishanslin follows what scant documentary evidence she has on the painting—and on the men and women who surrounded around it—to their very ends, before stepping back to examine a broader set of sources (fabrics, paintings, buildings, literary texts, newspapers, botanical texts, maps) in order to recreate the broader tapestry of their lives and worlds.

This object-centered scholarship also produces an attendant language of object-centered perspective. The painting—and its close cousin, a portrait of Anne Shippen Willing’s sister-in-law, dressed in Anne’s silk dress—is itself an actor. The painting “witnessed” and “watched” (215). What could be lost in such a re-centering, the central human characters in Anishaslin’s British Atlantic, is less my concern than other characters who are almost wholly absent. While Anishanslin makes many references to native and African peoples within the British Empire—as symbolic figures in the American landscape, as participants in the fur and peltry trade, as slave laborers—the imperial and Atlantic World she recreates is still overwhelmingly white and Anglo. That may be one possible downside to the object biography—no one single object can fully touch upon the wildly diverse populations and peoples who comprised the British Atlantic.

That criticism notwithstanding, the economic and cultural dimensions of the British Atlantic are well teased out in this dual-study of consumption and production. And an even more surprising strength of Anishanslin’s book is its focus on spatial, geographic, and environmental contexts. From the importance of the georgic to metropolitan imaginaries and consumer sensibilities, to the economic importance of land and territory to imperial rivalries, to Anishanslin’s conscious repudiation of scholarly regionalism in the study of the North American colonies, Portrait goes beyond simple rhetorical allusions to a British Atlantic to carefully map how objects physically traversed and connected the various spaces of the British eighteenth-century world.

Beautifully written, the metaphor of weaving and textures and textiles and threads pops up throughout the book—“layers” (13), “stretched” (215); “weave together that empire of commerce” (309); “knit the empire together” (82); “teases out” (67)—and nicely sets up the book’s final Part 5, “Unraveling Empire.” As Anishanslin concludes: “the hidden histories captured within this portrait tell tales of what wove the British Empire together, how it unraveled, and how new empires—on both sides of the Atlantic—came to be” (312).

One comment on “Review: Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk

  1. […] of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World, which Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt reviewed yesterday. Anishanslin is an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of […]

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